Boomers Helped to Shape the Record Industry — Literally

In the earliest days of recordings, a single song was cut into a wax cylinder. When the flat gramophone record replaced the cylinder, more physical space was available for more recordings, and the 12-inch, 78-rpm record became the standard distribution format. The shellac record disc became the material of choice in 1910, and by the 1920s, 78 rpm recording sales had reached their zenith. The popularity of recordings spawned the birth of a variety of record companies. Among the competitors were RCA Victor and Columbia Phonograph Company. The crash of 1929 dashed record sales, then World War II followed. Multiple companies had been researching new formats for records in the hope of introducing new standards. In the 1930s, RCA Victor worked on the assumption that a record could be just one song that would be less than three minutes long. The war interrupted their research.

After the war RCA’s competitor, Columbia, was researching methods of introducing higher quality recordings with less hiss and pop. Consequently, they developed the 12-inch, 33 1/3 long-playing (LP) record with classical music in mind. Since they could pack more grooves on the record, the speed could be reduced from 78 to 33 1/3 while gaining sound fidelity in the process. Meanwhile, RCA came up with a smaller, 7-inch record that would spin at 45 rpms. Both companies used the latest material — vinylite — to press their recordings, and developed players that positioned the phonograph needle at a shallower depth than what was required with earlier devices. These innovations enabled both to compact smaller grooves together on the discs to produce higher fidelity records than had been previously available. RCA introduced their 45 rpm records in 1947, but it would be a marketing blitz of 1949 that brought 45 rpm records into the consumer market in a big way. By the end of the decade, most record companies made turntables that would play either speed, and released records in both formats. Broadway show tunes, classical music and movie soundtracks were popular in LPs and sets of LPs could be sold together to cover the longer play time needed for the material. Popular music that was only available on LP could get quite expensive, but the 45 — a single — was a way of making songs available to a wider audience, especially the growing youth market, at prices they could afford. By 1958 the 78 rpm record was phased out entirely.

So, boomers, we see that the technology that was developed during and after the war coincided with a burgeoning youth market in the 1950s, which also collided with the dawn of rock ‘n roll and popularization of the transistor radio; the perfect storm had been created for Baby Boomers to embrace their own music. The 45 rpm was also the perfect size for new jukeboxes that began to appear in the 1940s and ’50s, enabling boomers to play the songs of their choosing one at a time, whether they were in a malt shop, record store or restaurant.

Mister Boomer’s mother grew up with what she generically called a “Victrola,” on which Mister B’s grandmother played 78 rpm records. Mister Boomer’s family, however, did not own a record player in the 1950s. There was a radio on the kitchen counter, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the family got a portable box-style 45 rpm record player as a hand-me-down from a cousin when she purchased a newer model. Brother Boomer took over from there and on a family shopping outing a short time later, their first record purchase was made. Brother Boomer picked up a package of a dozen records for 99¢. The one that was visible in the package’s clear window was She’s A Woman by The Beatles. Having seen The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, his parents agreed to buy the package to start the family record collection. Naturally, the only popular record in the package was The Beatles’ single, but Mister B still has several of the obscure others in his 45 collection anyway.

The 1960s saw an explosion of 33 1/3 LPs released, while 45 rpms were made available as a way to spur sales of the longer playing records. Once stereo was introduced on LPs and later, radio, 45s adopted stereophonic sound, too. FM radio embraced the LP with Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) programming. Stations could promote playing a full LP side without commercial interruption. By the 1970s, all singles were released in stereo, the same as LPs.

What were your first experiences with 45 rpm records like, boomers?